LEXINGTON, KY — Tennessee earned its first win over a top 25 team in the Josh Heupel era Saturday night as the Vols went to Lexington and won a nail biter over No. 18 Kentucky, 45-42.
Here are four quick takeaways.
Big Plays Power Tennessee’s Offense
It didn’t take Tennessee’s offense long to find the end zone Saturday night at Kroger Field. Receiving the opening kick, Tennessee’s opening drive started at its own 25-yard line.
Tight end Jacob Warren went in motion to the sideline, Hendon Hooker quickly fired a screen pass to JaVonta Payton and the transfer receiver made one Wildcat miss and took the ball 75 yards for the score.
The score marked the big play receiver’s sixth touchdown of the season.
It took Tennessee two plays longer on its second drive but the result was the same. Velus Jones. Jr got behind the Kentucky defense on a wheel route and Hooker put the throw right on the money for a 72-yard touchdown.
The Vols’ finally put a scoring drive together late in the first half, but even then chunk plays were crucial for Tennessee. UT totaled its final 33 yards on the drive on a 15 yard Hooker scramble and an 18-yard Hooker touchdown strike to Warren.
Jabari Small proved the running backs could get in on the fun in the second half, breaking off a 37-yard touchdown run while leaving a Kentucky safety in the dust with a beautiful juke move.
A 38-yard completion from Hooker to Tillman set up a six-yard touchdown connection between the duo that gave the Vols a two possession lead in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee Closes First Half Strong
Kentucky scored its 14th straight point to take its first lead of the game at the 3:25 mark in the first half. The Vols were reeling, having fumbled and gone three-and-out on their previous two drives.
Tennessee needed points to weather the storm, especially considering Kentucky received the ball to start the second half.
A strong return and horsecollar penalty gave Tennessee strong field position, but it looked like the Vols may squander it.
J.J. Weaver’s sack put Tennessee in third-and-18. The Vols answered with a 14-yard gain on a screen pass to Jones Jr. and then rolled the dice by going for it on fourth-and-four at the Wildcats’ 36-yard line.
Kentucky defensive back Vito Dittle read a rub route perfectly, but hit the Tennessee receiver a second early. Flags rained on the field and the Vols moved the sticks.
Two plays later, Hooker found Warren for the game tying score.
Kentucky had two timeouts at 1:14 on the clock and got aggressive. The Wildcats faced fourth-and-four at Tennessee’s 39-yard line and rolled the dice. An incomplete pass gave Tennessee the ball with one timeout and 16 seconds left.
Heupel got aggressive and Hooker found Cedric Tillman on three straight passes, setting up a Chase McGrath 43-yard field goal to give Tennessee the lead at halftime.
In a matter of two minutes, the Vols went from reeling in to half to leading 24-21 at the break.
Tennessee’s Defense Struggles, Makes A Few Stops
Tennessee made it to the other side of its late October gauntlet that saw the Vols play two of the SEC’s best offenses in Ole Miss and Alabama.
After playing over 100 plays against Ole Miss and over 80 against Alabama, even Tennessee’s players admitted they were excited to see a slower paced offense this week.
Kentucky’s players may have heard that excitement because the Wildcats came out and hit Tennessee in the mouth.
Kentucky went 75 yards on 14 plays on its first drive of the game, running it 11 times and punching it in the end zone to open the drive.
Playing off its run game, Kentucky’s offense had success against Tennessee throughout the first half.
Three of Kentucky’s first half drives ended in touchdowns. The other two ended in a missed field goal and a turnover on downs at the Vols’ 39-yard line.
Kentucky’s 42 points tied its season high against LSU.
Despite a poor performance, Tennessee found a way to create a handful of crucial stops in the second half.
First, with the Wildcats driving down three points, Alontae Taylor jumped a Will Levis pass and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter with Tennessee still leading by three points, a gang of Tennessee defenders sacked Will Levis on fourth down.
Finally, four plays after Kentucky gained 28 yards fourth-and-24 to extend the game, Will Levis’ fourth-and-10 pass fell incomplete, sealing the win for Tennessee.
Wild Time Of Possession Discrepancy
The border rivalry between Tennessee and Kentucky had the potential to have a lopsided time of possession.
Tennessee plays as fast as any team in the country and prides itself in being able to score in a heartbeat. Kentucky’s offense is known for grinding time with a physical run game.
All of those factors led to Kentucky controlling the ball for 46:08 of game’s 60 minutes.
Tennessee had touchdowns of 75, 72 and 37 yards while a 37-yard Cedric Tillman catch led to a three play touchdown drive.
On the other side, Kentucky scored touchdowns on four drives that lasted more than five minutes.
How the lopsided time of possession affected a struggling Tennessee defense is hard to tell, but one of the downsides of the pace Heupel’s offense plays with was exposed.